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Pincushion America: The irretrievable legacy of drilling everywhere on drinking water


Since 1949 the United States has had more than 2.6 million oil and natural gas wells drilled into its surface. Many more wells have gone uncounted since they were drilled before comprehensive records were kept. Add to that some 680,000 waste injection wells of which more than 150,000 inject industrial wastes, some of it considered hazardous. And, this may not be the full count since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that records are inadequate on the largest class of injection wells which it says “in general…inject non-hazardous fluids into or above [U.S. drinking water].” The “in general” part is not terribly reassuring.

The concern about all these holes through the country’s subsurface layers has taken on added significance with the widespread application of hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and natural gas trapped in deep shale formations. The process injects millions of gallons of water under high pressure mixed with toxic chemicals into wells to create fractures that will allow oil and natural gas to flow to the surface. Also flowing to the surface are millions of gallons of return flow which must be disposed of. Much of it is forced down waste injection wells.

Vast new areas in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Arkansas and many other states are now the subject of intense interest from drillers. So, an issue that had previously been confined to hydrocarbon-rich states such as Texas, Louisiana and California has now become a nationwide concern almost overnight.

The ProPublica story referenced above makes the case that the injection process changes the underground geology because of the amounts that have been injected (trillions of gallons), the high pressures used and the fractures created intentionally or unintentionally by the process–fractures which have the potential to allow dangerous wastes to reach underground drinking water aquifers. All of this is compounded by the lax supervision by both state and federal regulators who are overburdened in any case and have too few resources to monitor so many wells. It is no surprise then that many wells experience failures and leaks.

So where does that leave the future of America’s drinking water? One former EPA engineer predicts that within 100 years most of the country’s underground drinking water will be contaminated. This is an observation that I want to focus on.

I had a conversation this week about this issue with a contact who frequently does environmental consulting with clients in the oil and gas industry. While he thinks the immediate dangers of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas wells are overblown, when I asked him about the long-term integrity of all those millions of wells, both recent ones and those long since abandoned, he was less sanguine. I asked him to imagine those wells not 10 years or even 100 years from now, but 1,000 years from now. He agreed that most of them will have disintegrated allowing free flows of liquid along the drill paths. There wouldn’t be much pressure, he added. But then, the liquids don’t need to come to the surface to be a problem for underground drinking water.

More recent wells might maintain their integrity much longer since they are usually stainless steel, and the concrete which surrounds them is more intelligently formulated to withstand corrosive elements in the subsurface layers. He was far more concerned about the waste injection wells which he agrees are poorly regulated and poorly run. These, he believes, pose the greatest danger to underground drinking water supplies.

I suggested that we are not accustomed to asking questions such as, “Who will be monitoring all these wells in 500 years or 5,000 years?” Human civilization, that is, our settlement in cities with their complex systems and logistics, is only roughly 10,000 years old. And, many discrete civilizations have come and gone in that period, most in under 1,000 years; many have come and gone in only a few hundred.

A great number of people in our time imagine that our technological age has solved the problem of civilizational collapse. They imagine our society moving from triumph to triumph and never making fatal mistakes that could wipe our way of life from the globe. Since the mental time line these people imagine stretches out thousands of years into the future, they have no care about who will be monitoring all those wells we’ve drilled in America and across the globe.

But history suggests the folly of this way of thinking. And, it is therefore an almost unspeakable horror that we have already bequeathed to future generations–polluted groundwater virtually everywhere that will kill and sicken many and may make habitation based on groundwater supplies impossible in many areas the country.

That is the irretrievable legacy of our age of pincushion America. We get the temporary benefits while all future generations pay the terrible price.

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8 Comments on "Pincushion America: The irretrievable legacy of drilling everywhere on drinking water"

  1. keith on Sat, 30th Jun 2012 9:54 pm 

    I wonder how future generations will look upon the boomers in their history books. I think it will go something like this, accomplished nothing and consumed plenty.

  2. BillT on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 1:29 am 

    Keith, you are assuming that there will be anyone who can read and that there will be books on the subject. Books were rare things not too many years ago and will be again when this all winds down. I think that there will be few who have time to read even if they wanted to. Making a living will have a renewed meaning in the world of later this century. It certainly will not be driving to a cubby hole in some big building and sitting in front of a screen all day. It will likely involve manual labor in a field. But, yes, safe drinking water will soon be considered more valuable than oil.

  3. Norm on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 10:35 am 

    I gotta agree with this. The corporations are into ‘outsourcing’ their pollution and environmental damage so they dont pay for it. Imagine all the households that wont be able to trust their drinking water. Pay for testing and special filters. If your house has a source that won’t degrade, that is increasingly important. I am always trying to figure out when some of the extra water in Wash state will get pumped down to California. maybe build a water pipeline instead of Keystone XL.

  4. Norm on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 10:37 am 

    Keith is right on target. The future generations will absolutely hate the guts of anybody who lived from about 1970 – 2020. They will see us as a bunch of pigs who trashed a perfectly good planet and left them nothing but piles of garbage. There’s gonna be some animosity because they will have evidence from movies & photos that the planet was once a nice place but to the future inhabitants it will just be a big spherical garbage dump, and without the bio-diversity. Instead of rainforests, parking lots.

  5. BillT on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 11:51 am 

    Norm, you are correct also. We will not be popular, but then, there will be far fewer of us to care. American’s have been insulated from most of the world for too long. Now it is catching up with them and it isn’t pleasant. Soon they will get to experience the 3rd world from up close and personal.

    They will get to experience the IMF and WB gestapo taking all they have, and will ever have, just as has been happening in the 3rd world for decades. IRAs, 401ks, savings, all are ripe for confiscation by the Empire and will be in coming years, one way or another. I have nothing they can take except my life. And I plan to keep it that way.

    I expect it to hold together for a few more years and get progressively worse and worse until it all just collapses under some black swan event. 2020 is my timeline for the end of the Empire. What do you think?

  6. Mike999 on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 11:54 am 

    IT’s the leading edge of the Boomers who are the dumbasses.
    Please don’t group us all in with them.

  7. BillT on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 2:44 pm 

    Mike, anyone who is currently in the Us is guilty…as the ones receiving government money in one form or another is all ages. And everyone who is voting age had a part in allowing this to happen. Blame who you want, but look in the mirror when you do.

    You get gas because the government subsidizes the oil industry and does not tax your fuel like other countries. It subsidizes airlines, trains, highways, bridges, your cheap mortgage, etc. If free capitalism was allowed to work, you would pay directly for all of those services. Then there is welfare in it’s many forms, like disability, food stamps, unemployment, Medicare, Medicaid, SSI, etc. Yes, I omit Social Security as it was paid for and is still currently paid for by my taxes. I had no choice there for the last 50 years. 10% of the total cost of Iraq would pay out all of SS for the next 10 years. Just 10% of the total cost of Afghanistan would pay another 20 years. Cut the Military/Security Budget in half and it would be funded for 100 years.

  8. DC on Sun, 1st Jul 2012 7:51 pm 

    Amerikan Industrial Capitalisms MO. Dump all the unpleasant and or deadly byproducts of your primitive industrial processes into the nearest convenient waterway. Or if such a water-way does not exist nearby, imediately seek taxpayer assistance(ie money) to move your operation close to one. Once that is done, and your happily discharging heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, various mystery organic, or quasi-organic coupounds into the water supply for a few million people and there farms etc, and some hippy tree-hugger comes along and complains about mutant fish, or birth defects, insist its the govts job to make the water safe and clean again. Of course, this will require expensive and complex (and generally un-reliable and unproven) technologies to accomplish. Bottom line is, after we finish crapping in the water supply, its up to YOU to clean it up. And if you dont stop harrassing us well move to China, where the communists respect the free-enterprise job creators a lot more than you un-grateful lot!


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